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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.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Carnivorous squirrel

Rocky hauls off a squirrel's head

Sierra County, California; August-September, 2011 -- Camera trap set # 531

Our northern flying squirrels have a refined palate.

Not only do they relish mushrooms, truffles, and tender lichens; they also enjoy well-aged meat -- in this case road-killed western tree squirrel.

At this set amongst red firs on a north slope we expected a bear or a fox, hoped for a marten, and dreamt of a wolverine, but the only takers were the flying squirrel, a chipmunk and an American robin.

With 16 visits over 2 and a half weeks Rocky's persistence paid off.

He succeeded in running off with the head, which we had left lying on the rock.

Then he somehow managed to extract a joint of squirrel from under a slab of rock.

Fifty plus years ago, Robert T. Orr (late curator of birds and mammals at the California Academy of Sciences) told the boy-codger he was surprised to catch flying squirrels on Sonora Pass in meat-baited traps set for martens.

These appealing rodents haven't lost their taste for meat.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A windfall of cherries

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

A year and a half ago we were bumping along in the pickup when a bulb above Random Truth's head suddenly filled the cab with bright light.

"How about setting a cam in that patch of hollyleaf cherries on Gillam Spring Road?".

According to the scatological calendar it was that time of year again: the landscape was littered with carnivore scat, as it always is, but now most of the scat was chock full o' nuts, which means the critters were pigging out on wild cherries.

You can't mistake the pit of the hollyleaf cherry for anything else. As cherry pits go, they are BEEEG.

"Good idea, RT".

I am fond of windfall sets, but Craig was non-commital.

"You never know who's gonna show up at the cherry patch", I continued, "and ringtail might make a surprise appearance.

If indeed Craig was lukewarm to the idea, the mention of the elusive Chimineas ringtail changed his mind. He headed for Gillam Spring Road.

Well, we were too late in 2010. The cherries were past fruiting.

But we didn't forget.

A bumper crop of hollyleaf cherries called us back in 2011, and we set a camera at the assigned thicket.

We fetched it a month later and found over 400 photos.

The most common visitor (151 photos) was our old friend the wood rat. 

The wood rat (probably Neotoma macrotis) hauling a stick , which it dropped a few moments later.

In two shots the rodents were carrying cherries, in three shots they were hauling sticks, and the rest of the time they were running around or exploring. 

Gray foxes appeared on 4 occasions, and there was one photo of a bear's backside, clearly detectable only after photoshopping.

There were no surprises at set 530; in fact it was a bit of a disappointment.  

I knew the wood rats would be there; they're everywhere.

But I thought they would tell us a different story, a story about fulfilling their manifest destiny as seed dispersers.  

Not this time.

If we try again, with cameras at several patches of hollyleaf cherry, wood rat might give us a surprise.

But there are a lot of other subjects worthy of camera trapping, and wood rat can always be relied on for a cameo appearance.   

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The lofty realm of the tree vole

“’It was a hard climb.’ Bailey wrote in his field report, ‘but the large flat nest at once showed fresh signs and I dug in with great care.’”

It was 1914 and Vernon Bailey was at Spencer Butte, Oregon, perched in the lofty realm of the red tree vole 80 feet above ground.

A few moments later a vole appeared on the limb and started its escape.

“With increasing anxiety, he watched the little vole make its way along the branches, deliberately, slowly, seemingly dazed by the bright light of daytime.

“Conflicting feelings tugged at Bailey, his paradox realized: he never before had seen a living specimen of a red tree vole and wished to observe as much of its habits as he could; at the same time he did not want to lose his opportunity to collect the specimen. 

“’I could take no chances of losing so precious a specimen’, he later wrote. With the tree vole about twenty feet from him, he drew his collecting pistol, aimed slightly to one side so as not to damage the fur, and knocked the animal to the ground.

As George Jobanek wrote in his excellent historical chronicle of naturalists pursuing tree voles from which I have quoted, the Biological Survey’s Bailey finally collected the elusive red tree vole a day before his 50th birthday.

If the codger is lucky, he’ll "bag" the rodent in pixels before the year is out.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to climb 80 feet, and I was armed with a camera trap rather than a shooting iron.


Jobanek, G.A. 1988. Searching for the tree vole: an episode in the 1914 Biological Survey of Oregon. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 89(4):369-400.

Looking up from the nest.

The camera ready to go (the rope came down with the climber)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A meal that kept giving

There was no gaseous bloat, no writhing skin bag of maggots.

Just a cold carcass, which in the words of cowboy curmudgeon Wallace McRae, had barely started its 'transformation ride'*.

"Now, if we had 'really beeg cojones' ", I mused, "we'd gut this elk and put a cam in the body cavity".

The gaggingly repugnant but most sporting of camera trap sets -- the 'chest-cavity set' periodically tempts me as a route to up-close and personal pics of hide-tearing flesh-gulping predators.

Cavity sets,  if you are willing to crawl into dark places, are usually reserved for hollow logs, burrows and caves.

Wildlife photographer Alan Root knows no limits in such matters (at least in his youth), and to him we owe gratitude for showing the marvelous possibilities in Mysterious Castles of Clay.

Even if you don a garbage bag, setting a camera in the chest cavity of a large dead ungulate is a messy feat.

But who would opt for the alternative of crawling into the rib cage and spending the night there with camera in hand?

And yet, there's more than one account of a freezing frontiersman bundling up in a fresh buffalo hide or crawling into an eviscerated but steaming carcass.

A sound sleep they didn't get, but kick-boxing wolves under a wet hide certainly warmed them up.

But I'm getting off track.

As you might have guessed, our cojones were not equal to the task, so we settled for the unimaginative 'cam-beside-carcass set', and we still got some surprises.

The cams were set for night photos, but circumstantial evidence told us that vultures first feasted on elk lips and eyeballs; then they scalped the faces, slit their bellies, dragged out the viscera, and liberally whitewashed the neighborhood.

The carcasses grew gaunt but were still in one piece a month later.

Only 3 scavengers were to be counted in pixels, and only a deer mouse was photographed climbing into the meat locker.

The rest tended the carrion like a garden, apparently picking tender maggots and crunchy beetles from the exodus generated by aging flesh.

A burrowing owl was the most popular visitor -- making 9 forays.

A coyote made 3 visits, but was never seen tearing hide or gulping meat.

Like the owl it seemed to harvest insects, but lacking a beak, straw was unavoidable.

The fare at this diner didn't measure up to the beef at the Carrion Cafe.

The elk was more like a garden -- a meal that kept giving.

*/ If you were too lazy to click on the first link, I'm reminding you that you won't regret reading McRae's "Reincarnation".

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On the road

Bigfoot statue at the Bigfoot Museum
in Willow Creek. 
The codger's spending more time on the road.

The 8 hour drive to Chimineas wasn't enough.

I extended my camera trapping range north to Humbolt County, the fog belt, California's NW coast. 

The charisma of the red tree vole made me do it.  

This corner of tree vole country is 250-road miles from home, and for half of the ride I track the winding course of the Trinity River.

This is also the heart of Bigfoot county, but the only big feet I saw were those of middle-aged men in waders.

They leave their pug marks between the road shoulder and the banks of the Trinity.

Trinity River with middle-aged men in waders.

The ride to the Chimineas Ranch on the other hand is even longer -- 400 miles from home -- and the scenery only gets interesting the last hour or so when you leave Rt 5.

I prefer the ride to Humbolt County, where I am not vulnerable to the uncanny physiological effect of wide open space on the weight of my accelerator foot.

A few months ago the codger fell victim to this phenomenon on a remote stretch of highway, which caught the attention of an officer of the California Highway Patrol.

It wasn't far from where James Dean met his ending 56 years ago.

I thanked the officer with mixed feelings and drove home in a blue funk.

I paid the fine, paid the fee to attend on-line traffic school, and read the lessons every morning over coffee.

When I passed the written exam the burden of guilt and worry disappeared.

The codger no longer races with the flock down Rt 5.

He looks like a lame old goose in the right lane, cursing the 18 wheelers.

And when he crosses into the fast lane he lives with the ire of Nascar impersonators who ride his tail, flash headlights, sneer, flip me off, and pass in a huff.

No longer does he just look like a codger.

Now he truly drives like one.

It makes for long and trying road trips.

My adventures are reserved for the woods. They begin when I arrive, not when I hit the road.

Meanwhile, the ongoing quest for tree voles continues.

If you are interested, read one of my old buddy's accounts in Rivers Wind Notes

Sunday, November 6, 2011

When the water's low

It didn't take long for the great blue heron to nail something in the darkness -- perhaps a tadpole or fish.

With the exception of weasels and ringtails, it seems almost everything at the Chimineas Ranch gravitates to the waterholes in late summer.

They don't always just stop for a drink either. This pool was filled with fish, perhaps bluegills, and the raccoons waded about while the pigs rooted on the banks.

For the life of me I can't identify the prey.

Can you?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Halloween pig's advice

"Pig out, kids, but try to share your candy with your little brothers and sisters. Okay?"

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An update on Barny

Here's a brief update for those of you who recall Barny's engaging summertime performances in a grassy swale on Barrett Creek last year.

The bird was a real charmer, and seemed to be playing predator games with seed heads of grass.

Owl specialist Hans Peeters advised us to "get it on video"; the pictures were intriguing, but they were only snapshots.

To make the case that the birds are playing predator, we need action-packed sequences of stalk, dance and pounce.

Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to film Barny's actions this year, but we did set cameras at water holes in September, and it was reassuring to find Barny or his/her impersonators there.

There were many pictures of the usual shenanigans, and this time there was a trio of cakewalkers.

Since I just got a very good deal on a video cam (a DXG-567v with Infra-red array) I believe we'll be able to get that footage next year.

[Note: these pictures were taken with dated but reliable Cuddabacks supplied by Brian Miller of the Wind River Ranch.]

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Restless Haystack

A mountain beaver or showtl on the job -- is it making hay or pitching its tent? 

In 1995 Mark Johnson published an article on tents that cover the burrows of mountain beavers.
"Supporting sticks were placed over and across the entrances. Then, sticks were placed perpendicular to these over the entrances. Finally, leafy sticks of big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), or both were placed across the sticks concealing the entrances." 
The tents were clearly the handiwork of the showtls and not the caring gesture of a passing Sasquatch.

Not all burrows had tents, but Johnson thought they may keep burrows dry in a rainy climate.

Though usually agreeable, showtl enthusiasts have at times disagreed about the animal's tolerance of water.

A pioneering student of the showtl, C. A. Hubbard opined that the rodent shuns watery tunnels, "because Aplodontia cares for water only as  a drink."

Lloyd Glenn Ingles on the other hand averred that, "Living as it often does near water, the animal is a fine swimmer."

Yours truly and his student camera trappers have also given photographic proof that showtls and their neighbors have no qualms about scooting through watery tunnels.

I have the feeling that the showtl's tent may be a drying rack for plant cuttings, that is, nothing more than a haystack, and haystacks have also been reported numerous times in the scientific literature.

The big question is about the criss-cross arrangement of the sticks.

Are they an act of God or an act of mountain beavers?

I've assumed they were an act of God, that they just happened to be there as they had fallen from the trees.

We have actually removed a few sticks from some burrows for better pictures, and if the rodent replaced them with others, I for one didn't notice.

But I am greatly intrigued by Johnson's suggestion, though apparently based on circumstantial evidence rather than direct observation.

A rodent that builds a tent or a drying rack by dragging sticks over its burrow is a remarkable rodent.

It's a tool user.

So confirming Johnson's tent-building observation is on the list for next year's showtl work.

If you haven't seen a showtl's haystack, here's a sequence of 30 photos taken during a week near Yuba Pass, California.

Try to stay awake. It's less than a minute and the action gets exciting at the end.


Hubbard, C.A. 1922. Some data on the rodent Aplodontia. The Murrelet 3(1):14-18.

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

Johnson, M.K. 1975. Tent building in mountain beavers (Aplodontia rufa). Journal of Mammalogy, 56(3):715-715.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quest for the Mountain Loris

When Rich Tenaza invited me to join him on a trip to Tajikistan I regretfully turned it down.

I'd been to Asia already once this year and I knew another trip would be a hard sell at home.

Rich is also a great leg-puller, and I suspected I was about to become the victim of his mirth.

But I was wrong.

Being an old Asia Hand, Rich is always ready for adventure East of Suez, and he was hell bent on following up on an intriguing sighting from Tajikistan.

In 2002 University of Pacific alumnus Tom Mohr was camping at the north end of Iskanderkul, a lake resort in Tajikistan, when he encountered a strange slow- moving animal with piercing eyes.

He contacted Prof. Tenaza, and so began the dialogue.

The only thing that fit his description was the slow loris, Nycticebus bengalensis.

So Rich sent Tom a video of a slow loris, and Tom confirmed that the animal in the video resembled the one he had seen.

This is strange, because the nearest population of slow lorises, in SE Bhutan and NE India, is over 1200 miles from Tajikistan's cold mountains.

But these are strange times.

New species are still being discovered, and species thought to be extinct are being re-discovered, alive and well, in remote outposts.

Rich knew that the possibility of something outrageous, like a range extension of the slow loris couldn't be dismissed.

He has made bizarre discoveries before. He was the first to observe the pangolin's rolling stone escape -- yes, the pangolins disappearance act consists of curling up in a ball and rolling downhill like a cannonball.

So Rich organized a camera trapping expedition, which included UOP engineering emeritus Dave Fletcher, Coby Ward from the Department of Mathematics. and Tom Mohr and his wife Rayhan.

Tom knows the region well; he is married to a lady from Kazakhstan and works for Project Hope in Central Asia.

Mohr interviewing a local.

The group spent 17 days in the Iskanderkul area interviewing residents, setting cameras and applying lures of slow loris urine nearby.

Their cameras photographed

little brown bears (Ursus arctos),

big brown bears,

Tolai hares (Lepus tolai),

rats (perhaps Rattus pyctoris)  ,

and ravens.

If the mountain loris is there, the lure didn't do its trick.

Neither did the wolf bait.

As Dave Fletcher tells it, "Rich bought a sheep and had it slaughtered to use
as bait for wolves and other carnivores.

"We managed to get shots of domestic cattle, until a large black and white dog showed up and ate all the meat.

"On the positive side, the family we stayed with enjoyed the mutton.

The existence of the mountain loris in Tajikistan remains unconfirmed

Moral of the story: Any wildlife report of a strange slow-moving animal with piercing eyes is a excellent reason to mount an expedition.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to find a tree vole's nest

I had the pleasure of meeting Lowell Diller and his staff last week at Green Diamond Resource Company.

This is California's NW coast: redwoods, Douglas fir and banana slugs, the rain forest.

Appropriately, it was raining.

Lowell gave me a lesson in finding tree vole nests.

Drive very slowly with your head out the window, one eye on the road, and one eye on the canopy.

Note: we were on a restricted dirt logging road.

Don't try it on winding roads with traffic, like the coast highway.

When you find what looks like a nest made of fir needles scope it out with binoculars to see if it is occupied.

A mass of brown Douglas fir needles means it is vacant. A spotted owl might have nailed the occupant, or the vole just moved on.

If it is littered with green sprigs of fir and green resin ducts you probably have an active nest.

Diller is a pro at it, but it didn't take long for the codger to catch on.

When I spotted the atypical nest below, I passed the final exam with flying colors.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Saw dust rub-a-dub

"What in the bejeebers is going on in there?"

Chipmunk (in this case, the shadow chipmunk Neotamias senex) showed up an hour after we made the camera trap set.

It cased the joint and disappeared. 

The rodent was back later that week, after the bear and shrew appearances.

The coast was clear, so it stripped down and dived into the sawdust.

Yes, carpenter ants provide some useful services, including sawdust production.  

For a long time the ant gallery in that tree has showered sawdust on everything poking its head in the door.

But it's not really sawdust per se. It's frass, which is actually insect poop. 

Carpenter ants, however, just chew up the wood without passing it through their system; so their frass is a wholesome product that smells like a wood working shop.

Chipmunk seems to have developed a powerful hankering for the stuff, because it came back a week later to luxuriate in it.

It tumbled and rolled with reckless abandon,

and then soaked a while, having chipmunk thoughts. 

No doubt this is an impeccably clean chipmunk, with the outdoorsy musk of Paul Bunyan.  

Here's an instructional sequence intended for hygienically challenged chipmunks, just so they know how it is done. 

And yes, in case you were wondering, the codger did doctor the opening picture of this blogpost.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Trowbridge shrew

I mistook this for a mouse, but on the computer screen at home it was clear that the ears were too small.

There are two species of shrews in the northern Sierra Nevada that sport brown summer coats and bi-colored tails.

The Wandering or Vagrant shrew (Sorex vagrans) prefers open meadows, while Trowbridge's shrew (Sorex trowbridgii) is found in conifer and mixed deciduous forests.

This hollow tree is in an extensive stand of red fir; so I am assuming we are looking at Trowbridge's shrew.

Shrews don't stay put, and they tend to be found in microhabitats overlooked by most camera trappers.

It's a special occasion when I get a photo of one.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The bear comes back

That hollow red fir in Sierra County was an enchanting place, and I wasn't ready to pull the camera after just one month.

A natural shelter like that is such an attraction to wildlife that you never know what's going to stick its head in the door.

The yearling bear visited on four more occasions, giving us a better selection of portraits, but on the second visit it knocked the camera ajar.

We might have missed quite a show if it had remained pointing at the entrance, but by a stroke of good luck it was still upright and aimed at a pile of carpenter ant frass.

Next time you'll see an incidental visitor, after that an unabashed show of sensuality.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Ig Nobel Awards

The Codger is proud to announce that childhood chum, David Rentz, aka Mr Smiley of BunyipCo, received an Ig Nobel Award with distinguished fellow entomologist, Darryl Gwynne.

View the ceremony here and have some good chuckles.

It's 2 hours of jolly good fun, but you can drag the time slider to 1:39:00 and learn how these two esteemed scientists discovered that a certain brand of Australian beer (the "stubbies" have love handles) lure male buprestid beetles into romantic dalliance.

Read the 2-page original work here.

BTW, Mr Smiley joined us at Chimineas last week.

Rentz and Alice at Chimineas.
Is he getting a bright idea -- or is that a mercury vapor lamp? 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

More subway traffic

An adventuresome chickaree was one of two new sightings in the showtl's subway.

It was photographed exploring the tunnel twice, in the morning and afternoon.

JK of Cameratrapping Campus had a similar chickaree (or Douglas squirrel) experience at another showtl burrow a few miles from here.

What's going on? Are they hunting for truffles down there?

Chickarees are well known as fungus connoisseurs, but I know of no reports of their activities as subterranean fungus-foragers.

A long-tailed meadow mouse also trolleyed through a few days later (mid morning and late afternoon).

Most curious however was another appearance of the water shrew.

Is its peculiar posture just a coincidence or is it pushing mud in the middle of the tunnel?

The mud appeared on August 27 shortly after midnight, and the shrew was photographed 21 hours later, and once again 2 days after that.

After that the mud pile slowly disappeared.

I'd love to know what it was up to.

I am sure the showtls' tunnels hold many more secrets of natural history.