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, August 31, 2010

Puma gunned down in Berkeley

Berkeley may be an open-minded city, but it's a closed society when it comes to large tawny cats. 

Thanks to Jake K. for the latest puma news from the Bay Area.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Death on the highway, or Minkie went kerblinkie

This female mink was tagged by a passing vehicle yesterday on Rt 70 in the Feather River Canyon.

She had no choice about crossing the highway and had probably crossed it many times before to move between Murphy Creek and the Feather River.

The more natural route would have been to swim through the Murphy Creek culvert under the highway.

This isn't possible because the water spills out of the culvert with such force that no sensible mink would consider it.

The location of her tragic ending has been memorialized in the California Roadkill Observation System. which I might add, all California roadkill aficionados should make use of.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Suddenly, agoraphobia

Normally I don't cross this catwalk, because the trail is interrupted by many short catwalks beyond this point, and it makes for a lousy bike ride.

This morning I decided to cross it  to escape the other hikers -- the cool weather brought them out early.

By forging ahead they would have time to return to their cars and I could whizz back on a clear trail.

Fred was of a different mind.

He watched me pussyfooting with my bike across the span and yodeled his angst.

I paused to coax him but kept going until I realized he might call in a puma.

Pumas here are quite fond of dog.

So I turned the bike around and headed back wondering why the sudden agoraphobia?

Crossing these expanded metal catwalks is nothing new to my dog.

He has crossed this and many others with me, often at a run and almost daily.

He shoots the rapids in the flume.

Did he know something I didn't know?

Had he detected something I had missed -- a perception in canine scentovision -- a moment of prescience -- a Lassie-like premonition?

Or did the expanded metal hurt his paws after the 3 mile run?

I can't explain it and neither can he.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A hold out from the Pleistocene

Long-tailed vole photographed by Jake Kirkland during the Camera Trapping Workshop in July 

The long-tailed vole (Microtus longicaudus) is a nonconformist.

Unlike most other Microtus it is not a highway engineer -- it doesn't seek out lush pastures to make runways, zip back and forth gathering forage, and obsessively trim any intruding plant growth.

It's a vole of mountains, forests, and sometimes sagebrush.

Though it lives where there are plenty of wet grassy meadows, it prefers wooded habitats like this thicket of mountain alder between the Yuba River and red fir forest.

The modus vivendi of the long-tailed vole was shaped by the cool wet weather of the Pleistocene, which  is reflected in its distribution from southern Alaska to Arizona and New Mexico.

That may also explain why it thrives in disturbed areas -- fire, clear-cutting, and surface mining affects vegetation just like earth-moving glaciers.

In the arid lands of the southwest it is holding its own on "sky islands" -- mountaintop habitats that resemble areas farther north.

During the ice age the southwestern part of the US looked more like Canada today, but that started to  change when the glaciers melted.

So the cool breezy heights of the intermontane west are remnants of how it used to be, and refugia for hold-outs from the Pleistocene -- like the long-tailed vole.


Wilson, D.E. and S. Ruff (eds). 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Ingles, L.G. 1965. Mammals of the Pacific States. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto.

Verts, B.J. and L. Carraway. 1998. Land mammals of Oregon. University of California Press,  Berkeley.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bottled owl breath

Barn owl pellets from Chimineas -- chock full of  pocket gopher skulls and a few remnants of white-footed mouse, pocket mouse, and harvest mouse (to be confirmed). 

A quart jar of macerating owl pellets is not an appetizing thing, but that didn't dampen my granddaughters' interest.

The Redhead often views the Codger's ideas of little girl activities with a jaundiced eye, but I had wisely vetted the owl pellet dissection with her beforehand.  

Yes, I know who the boss is.

And in their grandmother's presence the girls knew there would be no surprises of the pull-my-finger kind. 

So there they sat on the back porch with forceps in hand waiting to dig for treasure in soggy rodent fur.     

Having steeped the pellets in warm water the night before, it was time to open the jar and pour the dark broth through a sieve.

That's when the girls' enthusiasm started to wane.

"That stinks", protested the redhead. and the girls echoed their grandmother. 

" I wouldn't exactly say it stinks", I countered. "It's just a little tangy smelling, like owl breath." 

"Look! There's a skull in there," I exclaimed. 

They ignored my feeble attempt at distraction. 

Grandma and the girls retired to the house for a game of Mexican train, while the Codger tweezed the bones by himself.

I hope you admire the fruits of my labor in the picture above. They are now packaged and awaiting identification on a winter day.

As for the bottled owl breath, I poured it on a dying Nandina in the garden.

That was a week ago, and I am happy to report that the plant's leaves have already turned from red to green. 

Conclusion: bottled owl breath is equally effective as child repellent and fertilizer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Mountain Cottontail

The mountain beaver's burrow was also a hangout for a young mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii).

"Normally members of this species are found to occupy rocky, sage covered hills and canyons in preference to plains. Locally it is to be found in willow or dense brush associations, often near springs or watercourses."  So wrote the late mammalogist, Robert T. Orr.

This location was far from sage, but it was was definitely brushy and near water, and the species was a welcome addition to my camera-trapping list.

There had been no sign of them during the past two years of summer camera trapping in Sierra County.

The camera recorded the cottontail at the burrow three times over two weeks, all between 2300 and 200 hours.

Though this is the time of day when bunnies should be foraging, this one seemed to be dozing most of the time.

Cottontails start to move about at an early age, and since the average litter size is about 4, there may have been siblings around.

Or this one could have been a sole survivor, because young rabbits are particularly vulnerable to predation.

In the Cascades of Oregon juvenile mortality is 40-80% by the end of August.

Youngster enters the damp subway.

The mountain cottontail is particularly dependent on free water and succulent fodder to maintain its water balance.

On the west slope of the Sierra Nevada springs and creeks are common, but in the rain shadow of Oregon's Cascades scarce water drives these rabbits to do some odd things.

This is probably mom checking out her youngster.

There in Deschutes County, Oregon, B. J. Verts and his students at Oregon State University found that on early mornings of July and August Mountain Cottontails imitate old-timey lumberjacks.

They climb spreading junipers quite adequately without the aid of climbing irons and ropes, and browse on the needles.

Juniper is less nutritious than other readily available plants and its terpenoids are not known to be tasty.

The researchers hypothesized that the rabbits were going to these extremes to get water during the driest part of the year.

Here in the Sierra Nevada the situation is different.

Aplodon's burrows often have running water, and the cottontail just has to duck down the burrow to get a drink.


Orr, R.T. 1940. The rabbits of California. Occasional Papers of the California Academy of Sciences No. XIX.

Verts, B.J., S.D. Gehman, and K.J. Hundertmark. 1984. Sylvilagus nuttallii: a semiarboreal lagomorph. Journal of mammalogy, 65:131-135. 

Verts, B.J. and L. N. Carraway. 1998. Land mammals of Oregon. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Annual Aplodon Photos

Whether you want it or not we're serving mountain beaver today, or if you prefer, call it showtl or aplodon.

These photos were from a camera I set a month before the camera trapping workshop on the North branch of the Yuba River.

I found but one burrow in the alder thicket where the colony is located, and was concerned that the population had crashed.

But I was wrong.

The burrow was active a month later when I took the class to check the camera, and the thicket had quite  a few additional burrows.

The animal above came from a watery tunnel, and I have found quite a few burrows now with water running freely from them.

But most exciting was this photo of two fellows in one frame.

They look to be a bit smaller than the previous animal(s), so I am guessing they are young of the year. 

The color difference is due mainly to differing flash exposure. 

The camera had taken 32 pictures of the rodents, but only one photo during the first and second week. 

All the other pictures were taken on the 22nd and 24th day of the set. 

In my experience aplodon aren't camera shy, but often they don't make their first appearance until two or three weeks have passed.  

You must wait patiently for the rodent with humanoid ears to photograph itself.

But while you wait the plants between the camera and the burrow grow with a vengeance.    

My advice is this: when you make your set show no mercy for those tender sprouts. 

Bring a big machete and cut them down.  

If you don't, you will get some wonderful photographic studies of plant growth, but no images of the rodent with humanoid ears.  

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Little Big Man Moment

The Denver Public Library

Codge recently found himself sitting beside a cart of seven boxes on the fifth floor of the Denver Public Library.

The boxes contained the professional papers of the late Stanley P.Young, the former Division of Biological Survey's predator man who orchestrated the control and eradication of wolves, coyotes, and pumas on the western ranges.

I saw a bear on the walk to the library
It was a passage back in time, and if you remember the opening scene of Little Big Man you'll know how I felt -- a little like the awed historian interviewing the 121-year-old Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman) in an oak-paneled library somewhere in Kansas.

I actually used to see Stan Young in the halls of the US National Museum (Washington DC) in 1967, two years before his death.

He was a retired civil servant and the codger was a 23-year old temporary employee cleaning skulls for the Division of Mammals.

I had read his books -- The Clever Coyote, The Wolves of North America, and Puma, Mysterious American Cat , but just couldn't muster the nerve to introduce myself.

Forty-three years later Young's letters, manuscripts, and photographs were telling me his story.

First I went to the box of photographs, and felt a little sad looking at the government hunters' pictures  -- pant-smiling wolves in the grip of Newhouse No. 4 1/2 foot-hold traps.

The happy face of stock dogs herding sheep and Fred fetching sticks is the same face worn by those panting wolves as they faced death in the bright sun.

Then there were pictures of excavated dens -- dead coyote pups neatly posed in rows beside their dead mother, her head resting on her forelegs.

I wasn't sitting in judgement. Judge not a man of the past by the standards of today, right?

In fact, Young loved wildlife and the outdoors, but he was a predator man and a damned good one.

Viewing those stirring images however was like eating dessert before the main course.

I had already used up an hour, and it was time to search for material about Young's camera trapping expedition in 1937 for cougars in the Carmen Mountains of Mexico.

When I found the file I read it and took notes like a crazed fiend.

My mission was accomplished and time was running out, but there were other boxes.

I opened each one and scoped the hand-written labels on the folders.

You won't believe it, but I found more material about camera trapping.

So my project isn't finished.

There are still unanswered questions, but in due course you will read about Young's camera trapping partnerships here.

The Pioneer Monument, downtown Denver

I enjoyed the hell out of that library visit, and the scenery on the walk back to the hotel was in the spirit of my quest.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Baby bat CSI

The fuzzy thing I felt in the pool strainer was a dead bat.

It was so small I thought it was a western pipistrelle, but on closer inspection I saw that it was probably an immature Myotis.

What happened?

Was it roosting under the roof tiles of the house and fell into the pool on its maiden flight?

Or was it hanging from its mother's nipple and fell off when she skimmed the pool for a drink?

Any learned explanations out there?

(PS: I measured it and preserved it as an alcoholic specimen for the California Academy of Sciences.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Postmortem of a camera trap

The solemn concentration of a postmortem 

Chas Clifton of Southern Rockies Nature Blog recently chronicled the chilling demise of his camera trap, with photos of the tragic final moments of its life lying on its back looking up into the trees above.

Chas sent  the camera  to me as a donation to science.

Many thanks, Chas.

Participants of my camera trapping workshop conducted the postmortem under the guidance of camera coroner and pathologist Randomtruth.

Was the camera jawed and pawed to death?

Or were its circuits blown as a result of a dousing in the spring?

The dissection revealed that blunt force trauma was counterindicated.

Though the bear had eviscerated the camera and thus robbed it of battery power shortly before death, there was no evidence of mechanical damage externally or internally.

A thin silty film however was evident throughout the body cavity.

Conclusion: assault and battery temporarily denied the camera its vital functions, but the cause of death was irreversible electrical damage resulting from immersion in the spring.

Pervasive silt was the deciding evidence.

RIP dear camera trap.

Though your life was brief, your service was unflagging and your courageous passing was in the call of duty.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Another reason to own a bandsaw

One of the advantages of having a band saw is cutting frozen food, like a loaf of frozen bread.

You can always take it out and let it thaw, but this isn't an option if (a) you wife has storing it for a special occasion, (b) you are craving real bread with real crust, and (c) there's no decent bread in the house.

Just trim off a few slices on your band saw and discretely return the loaf to the freezer.

Then just toast it to thaw and enjoy.

Of course, you are not going to fool her with any explanation or excuse, and she is not going to marvel at what a good job of slicing you did.

So you'll still have to take your verbal spanking when the time comes -- unless you polish off the whole loaf and it's disappearance becomes a mystery which you blame on failing memory.

On second thought, you'll still have to face the music, which is likely to be a dirge.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Denizens of Deadman

A chickaree aka  Douglas squirrel  came first. 

Well, Jake volunteered to join me, so I didn't have to climb Deadman alone.

Normally Fred would have been there too, but the redhead took him home so I could wrap up the workshop and pack up without distractions.

The cameras had been out for only 48 hours and memory should have led me to them like a bird dog, but even with the GPS we bumbled about looking for the first set.

Of course we checked the pictures as soon as we found it  -- the moment of truth had arrived.

The first visitor to the set, a runty chickaree and doubtless young of the year, left one picture the morning after we set the camera.

We clicked forward . . . blank images . . . and hallelujah!

There was bushy-tail poised on a rock and showing its diagnostically furry bicolored caudal appendage.

The bushy-tailed wood rat (Neotoma cinerea).

It had visited the second night and like the chickaree had left but one photo.

We resumed our climb to the top of the scree and found the second camera just before noon.

A pinon mouse had visited the first night.

Judging from those big ears  it was a Pinon mouse (Peromyscus truei)

And Little Chief Hare made a cameo appearance the next day.

Deadman had paid off, and we ate lunch with satisfaction beside the set.

Our mountaineering exercise had proved that habitat is often key to finding one's target species.

Both pika and bushy-tailed wood rat evolved in the footprints of glaciers.

For two years I had sought the wood rat among boulders and outcrops only a half mile from here.

It should have been there, but only after ploughing the literature did I learn that talus was also one of bushy-tail's favored habitats.

Our routes in and around Deadman Scree.

We explored the rest of the scree into early afternoon, and recorded waypoints for a big red fir, and a new colony of mountain beaver.

Then we drove back to camp to show off the pictures.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The hot rocks of Deadman Scree

The hot rocks of Deadman Scree -- home of Little Chief Hare and Bushy-tailed wood rat.

I knew they'd soon be ahead of me so my parting advice was "Keep an eye out for urine stains on the rocks."

With that the class began the ascent through the red firs and hungry mossies to the hot rocks of Deadman Scree.

Actually, the adventure began with a foot bath because the Yuba River was a bit too high for rock hopping.

Footbath in the Yuba

The hikers spread out in the forest as they climbed to the scree and good-will-ambassador Fred dashed about paying visits.

I was busy photographing orchids and wintergreens.

The guy could use sun glasses.

When I finally reached the scree the troops were catching their breath half way to the top of the rock slide, but not far away was Christian, who was apparently moving at my more leisurely pace.

He seemed to be in a peaceful reverie -- perhaps meditating.

"Let's look for urine stains," said I.

We began the search for bushy-tail's pissing rocks, and in no time found them in the rubble.

Bushy-tail's white-washed pissing rocks.

This stuff was not the golden amberat (or crystallized urine) that fooled the 49ers into thinking it was peanut brittle.

It seems the stone-oven heat of the scree cures rat urine differently. The finished product is a powdery whitewash.

I coached Christian in making the set.

We notched a stick with the kukri, lashed a cross piece for the camera mount, and jammed it between the rocks.  A few taps with a stone lodged it firmly in place.

Christian with camera trap crucifix.

Then it was time for the essenses -- castoreum and civetone -- dabbed on twigs and tossed on a likely rat perch.

Finally we powered the camera, reached up into the recess and waved our hands before the camera's sensor -- it was working.

The set was ready and the uphill climb continued.

Christian was soon out of sight, while I  plodded onward and upward with frequent pauses to gulp water and study the scree.

Near the top of the rock slide I found another place that whispered -- "this is where rodents and little chief hares do their thing".

I set a second camera and GPS'd the location.

It took another half hour for Fred and me to negotiate boulders and fight our way through a thicket of huckleberry oak, and suddenly Deadman Lake and Peak were in sight.

The troops were eating their lunches and disporting themselves in the cool water of the lake.

They were in good spirits; we took pictures and they hammed for my camera.

All agreed Sean's pose was more like
Teddy Roosevelt than John Muir.

"Did you set any camera traps?" I asked.

"We couldn't find any sign or good places", they replied.

There was only one nut who obligated himself to climb Deadman again.