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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Back from the ranch and smiling

Looking toward the Pacific from the high chaparral of the Chimineas, September 28, 2010 

I'm just back from the Chimineas where we re-set the cams in the sweaty embrace of the Indian Summer.

The last round of cam trapping yielded the usual cast of characters, or so I was told.

Buddy Craig broke the bad news by email before I arrived -- no new species records for the survey.

It was hard to believe, so I asked him specifically about two sets that I recalled were terribly promising.

No, not this time, he said.

But the depressing news was a ruse.

My youthful colleagues who had collected the cams late last week were thrilled with the findings and wanted to surprise the old codger in their presence.

When we gathered in the cook house Sunday afternoon they gave me a viewing of some pretty neat stuff.

You will start seeing the critters next week.

Meanwhile, go pick some berries and freeze them for the winter.

The days may be hot but they're getting shorter.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time to wash the bunnies

Periodically the redhead throws Fred's bunnies into the wash, and hangs them out to dry.

That's because periodically Fred's bunnies lose that soft cuddly feeling, become rather crusty with dog saliva, and need a bath.

You see, our post-prandial routine is a game of bunny fetch.

The codger watches the news, eats dessert, and tosses the bunnies from the living room into the kitchen.

Fred retrieves each bunny, drops it in my hand, then sits down and drools and stares at the biscuit on the arm of the couch.

He gets the biscuit when he speaks very softly using his indoor voice -- a very quiet bark or growl through muffled lips.

Using three bunnies reduces the slime factor on each bunny. They just become damp.

Using one bunny can become a messy affair and interfere with enjoying one's dessert.

If those were my bunnies I would be embarrassed to air them on the internet.

But they're Fred's bunnies, and he couldn't care less.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Juvie coyotes of Chimineas

We got lots of juvenile coyote photos back in the summer.

Young dumb coyotes . . .

. . .  but photogenic.

A few were camera shy, and might be around next year.

But I like them all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Leaf fungus camo

The big leaf maples are dropping leaves, and this one got my attention.

This variety of "spotosis" might be caused by the fungus Rhytisma punctata -- also known as Tar Spot.

The spots however aren't very tarry looking, so I'm not sure.

But the pattern is disruptive and might make decent camouflage for a camera trap.

There's quite a selection of camouflage patterns on the market -- Mossy Oak, Ridge Ghost, and Realtree to mention a few, and I recently saw one called Adrenaline.

Why not Tar Spot?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Culvert cat

Fred showed quite a bit of interest in this culvert last week, so I set a cam there.

It's my first photo of a culvert cat.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Another new species of sengi

Thanks to Richard Lair over in Thailand for alerting me to what looks to be another undescribed species of sengi or elephant shrew.

The presumed new species of sengi  announced its existence to the taxasphere through the medium of the camera trap.

This is hard to believe. The same thing happened only a few years ago.

It's as if undescribed species of sengis are clamoring to be photographed by camera traps.

I'm proud to say that friend, colleague, and fellow Cal Academy of Sciences Fellow Galen Rathbun, was one of the first to be notified.

Galen's expertise on sengi's started as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, and he will forever be esteemed at the Smithsonian's National Zoo for opening their magical world to the zoo's staff and visitors.

Watching them puttering about in the dim light of the research building's basement was a humbling zoological experience for many budding biologists, including yours truly.

Here's to sengis! (Gulp)

Mountain tigers found

Thanks to Terrierman for bringing this camera-trapping news of mountain tigers to my attention.

Treehugger also gives it concise coverage.

It doesn't surprise me. Wild dogs have also been found way up there too.

Where there are ungulates and no poachers you will find large predators.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Badgers and gangrenous legs

He's not looking for a salted leg, but he wouldn't pass it up if  he found one.

Would Badger run off with the salted gangrenous leg of a Texas Ranger?

You betcha.

Robert Duvall as Augustus McCrae.
Recall that it was an American badger that absconded with Gus McCrae's amputated leg as Woodrow Call hauled the old Ranger's salted corpse back to Lonesome Dove.

Not a wolf or coyote.

I believe it was somewhere in Wyoming -- excellent badger country.

Burial in Texas was Gus's last wish, but it's a bumpy ride when you and your leg are lashed to a travois, even on the flat plains.

So the badger got a meal, and fate forever separated Gus's corpse from one good walking leg. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Of rats in cars - a true life confession

The Buick that became a stinking ship.
A movement on the floorboard caught my eye the other day as I was driving to the trailhead to walk the dog.

There it was again.

Aha! A cringing mouse with vibrating ears.

It dashed back under the seat, and I noticed a piece of the seat's stuffing on the floor.

The roar of my 1980 Toyota pickup must have been a rude awakening for a car-camping rodent, and since I didn't see it again, I concluded it bailed out through the porous floorboard.

The last time something like this happened -- 4 decades ago -- I was careening to the airport on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in a 1959 Buick Le Sabre.

The redhead, in-laws, and kids in tow.

No AC in that car, just open windows, but the rush of air didn't muffle my mother-in-law's shriek -- "There's a rat in the car".

"Are you sure?" I had asked as if I didn't know.

"It was on my foot!" she exclaimed indignantly.

It was not a proper send-off for a summertime visit from the in-laws, and my hysterical laughter didn't help.

Until that Stephen King moment I had kept the rats a secret.

And where did they come from?

Well once a month I used the family car to haul 50 lbs of frozen horsement and a box of live rats from the National Zoo to the University of Maryland.

The strange cargo was food for the small carnivores I was studying at the university.

The problem is that the rats had mutinied earlier that week -- escaped from the box on the hot ride to the University.

I caught half of them, but the rest had disappeared into the bowels of the Buick.

Though there was an adequate supply of toddler snacks, mainly cheerios on the floor, I had secretly fed and watered the holdouts under the car seats and in the spare tire compartment.

But keeping the secret was anything but easy.

It might have been different if my father-in-law didn't have a proprietary interest in the car.

He had bought it for his daughter before we were married, and he was a compulsive tinkerer-fixit-upper of cars.

He was also Italian and regarded the car as a member of the family.

If I had disclosed the mutinied rats he would have disassembled the car and had the whole family waiting on him. 

My wife was using the car for family outings almost daily, so I had to check it surreptitiously in the morning and catch any errant rats before going to the university.

Then there was the angst of coming home, but each night I breathed a sigh of relief that the rats hadn't been discovered. 

I was managing the situation quite well until a couple days before my in-laws departure.

That's when the car started to smell a little sour.

I found a dead rat and disposed of it in the dumpster.

As luck would have it the smell didn't go away and my wife commented as soon as we got in the car and left for the airport.

My lame excuse was: "There's nothing dead in the car, sweetie, it's that dumpster that stinks".

The great deception unraveled as I laughed uncontrollably.

My in-laws thought I had gone bonkers, but my wife could read me like a book and knew this wasn't just a coincidence.

I loved my in-laws and never begrudged their annual visits to see their daughter and grandchildren.

But I knew that they knew: their daughter had married a nut -- a  zoologist.

God bless them. To their credit they were willing to live with it and hope for the best.

It was time for my confession: "A few rats escaped in the car last week . . . I think one must have died".

"Well they're not all dead!" observed my mother-in-law.

Laughter overtook me again.

We parked at the airport, took out the luggage, and my father-in-law found a dead rat in the spare tire compartment.

He threw it out by the tail and proceeded to kick it across the parking lot as my mother-in-law protested that they would miss the plane.

What I know now is that my father-in-law's unceremonious revenge on the dead rat was a purely symbolic act.

He was really kicking me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The roadkill network

Thanks to Jake K again for putting me onto this article about the road kill network, which I somehow missed in the NYT.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Drippy nut disease

 Fresh goo drops on a tool handle.

"You ate aphid poop?!" exclaimed Richard.

"I only tasted it." said I, sounding somewhat Clintonian.

"Go ahead and try it", it's not bad." I urged.

"No way", chuckled Richard.

What prompted this interchange were drops of syrup-like goo, the fallout from the canyon live oaks that covers cars, driveways, patios, outdoor furniture and everything else at this time of year.

It looks just like honey when fresh, and a few days ago Fred was licking it up off the asphalt like there was no tomorrow.

That's when I decided to sample it -- hmmm, mum-mum-mum. . . . acceptably sweet with a hint of blackberry and a subtle oaky aftertaste.

The stuff is sticky like pitch, but you don't need to gargle with turpentine to remove it. Water does the job. (Just kidding.)

I googled up some facts about the Woolly Asian hackberry aphid, and decided the goo must be honeydoo -- which is actually the doodoo of aphids -- the nutritious seductive power drink consumed by ants.

That was my thinking when Richard and I were pouring cement and the sticky shovel handle prompted my gustatory disclosure.

Well, I was wrong. Aphids weren't making this stuff, and I wasn't guilty of coprophagy.

Unlike real honey and honeydew, this goo doesn't crystallize.

It darkens, evaporates and looks just like the mellowed doodoo from fruit bats (which is semi-digested fruit pulp, in case you have ever wondered).

The sooty mold converts the honeydew to black granular spots.  

After consulting with Mr Smiley of Bunyipco and more googling I learned that the cause of the goo and its agent of change from amber condiment to nasty smudge is the bacterium Erwinia quercina, also known as sooty mold.

The bacterium is the culprit.

Any number of hole-boring acorn parasites -- including acorn weevils and cynipid wasps may pave the way for sooty mold to infect the oak, and this causes dripping nut disease. (Makes you cringe a little, doesn't it?)

I decided to examine the trees more closely, and found that many leaves showed damage from leaf mining insects like moth larvae. Some had drops of the oak goo, but closer inspection showed that intact leaves had the goo too.

Leaf miner damage -- but not the cause of the goo.

The nuts told the story. Big ones were green and looked robust and healthy.

Healthy acorns of a canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis)

Little nuts were misshapen and discolored and had a small hole with a residue of goo -- apparently victims of dripping nut disease.

The shriveled victims of dripping nut disease.
I found no drops from the holes in a few woody wasp galls, so conclude that the acorn weevil is Erwinia's main accomplice.

Feel free, dear entomologists and arborists to kindly set me straight on any deficiencies or errors in this post.


An article on Erwinia (Brennaria) quercina: http://apsjournals.apsnet.org/doi/abs/10.1094/PHYTO.2003.93.4.485

Erwinia factoids (there are many species): http://www.tgw1916.net/Enterobacteria/Erwinia.html

On interaction of boring insects and Erwinia: http://www.forestencyclopedia.net/p/p2208

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Magnificent ears

Black-tailed jackrabbit pauses on a trail.
Take a moment to admire those truly amazing ears.

They're movable, portable and work better than these.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The problem with sleeping in caves

The problem with sleeping in caves is that large cats, coyotes, wolves, bears and pumas like to sleep there too.

Not all the time, of course, but often enough to cause problems if you happen to be sleeping there already.

When snow is in the air a field biologist camped in the rimrock might want to drag his sleeping bag into a nice leaf-filled den like this one on the Wind River Ranch in New Mexico.

And that's exactly when the larger critters are likely to show.

Thus the evolution of snoring that sounded just like a cranky bear.

[Just discovered this photo on the internal memory of one of my s600s. It was taken at 4:00AM on Nov. 2, 2007]

More from the rock

Now for a few more pictures from that lookout rock used by the gray fox.

The next most common visitor was a western screech owl -- the gray color phase which is more common in arid habitats.

 It made two appearances on June 30 and July 17 and left 12 pictures, one of which contained two owls.

So perhaps two owls were using the perch -- a pair of owls, or maybe mother and offspring. 

The picture in flight looks looks as if it might have been snatching insects from the chamise.

There were also a few visits by Peromyscus.

In very early morning a California towhee and a Bendire's thrasher also perched on the rock.

The notch-eared coyote showed up on August 5th, a few days before we collected the camera.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Chimineas Ranch makes the news

Our Chimineas Ranch carnivore survey made the news in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Read about it here, and when you are done write the editor and tell him to give Dave Sneed a raise.

And here's the gray fox mentioned in the article.

I'll post some more of the photos from that visit soon.

Native red fox cam-trapped in Sierra Nevada

California's  introduced red foxes have fared better than our native Reynard.
The codger hasn't managed to photograph either.

This summer however wildlife biologists succeeded in camera trapping a red fox in the Sierra Nevada and used chicken-in-a-sock to prove it was a native Californian.

Read about it here.

Chicken-in-a-sock is not yet available in any fast food joints here, but it could catch on.   

Thanks again to Jake K. for the heads up.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Scatological art

Art is where you find it, and I found this creation on the flume trail.

If you find this curious or amusing your mind is as addled as the writer's.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chimineas' black bears -- descendants of pioneers

A descendant of the black bears that pushed the frontier into California's Central Coast Range.

Before the demise of our late and great state mammal -- the Grizzly -- black bears didn't trod the trails of the Chimineas Ranch.

The two bears coexisted in much of pre-over-developed California, but not in the Central Coast Range.

Nor were black bears found in in the Central Valley, the Los Angeles basin, and the San Francisco Bay/Delta region where Grizz reined supreme.

Something about those exclusively Grizz areas was unsuitable for black bears.

The smaller bear couldn't compete with the big bear for food, and in sparsely treed areas, it couldn't climb out of the Grizzly's reach when there were altercations.

Well, those are the hypotheses.

Before the last Grizz died in the 1920s however Joseph Grinnell noted that black bears were starting to show up in the mountains of southern California.

The Department of Fish & Game approved of the immigrant bears as a tourist attraction, and in the 1930s lent a helping hand by capturing and moving 28 black bears from Yosemite to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains.

Recently Sarah Brown and colleagues at UC Davis, Cal Fish & Game and the US Fish & Wildlife Service examined the molecular genetics of 540 California black bears to better understand their relationships and history.

They found that California's black bears fall into 4 major groups based on population genetics.

The North Coast/Klamath bears are the most genetically diverse, while the southern Sierra Nevada/ Central Coast population are the least diverse, though still within the range of genetically healthy populations elsewhere in the US.

Depending on analysis Sierra Nevada black bears fall into 2 or 3 genetic clusters along the mountains 650 kilometer length.

Pioneering bears of the Sierra Nevada invaded the exclusive domains of Grizz in Southern California and the Central Coast Range.

Southern California bears, the descendants of pioneers and translocated animals resemble bears of the Central Sierra Nevada.

Central Coast Range bears, including the bears of the Chimineas Ranch and Carrizo Plains are genetically related to the bears of the Southern Sierra Nevada.

That bear at the top of the page has no idea of its ancestors who forsook the Sierra Nevada for the hot summers and rainy winters of the central coast.

Come to think of it, I know as much about my own ancestors.  

[Nota bene: the young bear above was camera trapped on the Chimineas Ranch in July, 2010. The photo is uncropped.]


Brown, S.K., J.M. Hull, D.R. Updike, S.R. Fain, and H.B. Ernest. 12009. Black bear population genetics in California: signatures of population structure, competitive release, and historical translocation. Jounral of Mammalogy, 90(5):1066-1074.

Grinnell, J., J.S. Dixon, and J.M. Linsdale. 1937. Fur-bearing mammals of California. University of California Press, Berkeley

Storer, T.I. and J. Tevis. 1996. California grizzly. University of California Press, Los Angeles.