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.

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.